Aging through the Ages

For people in ancient times, elders were respected and important people in the community. They carried the stories, traditions and knowledge necessary to survive.

When the Tsunami swept through Southeast Asia in December 2004, the world came to notice a group of people called the Moken who live very much the way people lived tens of thousands of years ago. They spend up to seven or eight months of the year living in the water and traveling the coastline of Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia.

On December 26, a clan of Moken living on the beach in Thailand noticed the water receding into the distance. It was the elders who understood the signs and warned the people to move to higher ground. At first reluctant the younger people argued, but the elders insisted. At sea, the Moken who were in boats also noticed the change in the ocean. They headed further out into open waters.

Devastation wreaked havoc throughout Southeast Asia, killing over 175,000 people that dreadful day. Not one Moken was killed. Whether they were on the coast or in a boat on the water, the Moken saw the signs and retreated to safety.

None of the living Moken had seen a tsunami before. But, the elders had stories that had been passed down throughout the ages about the big waves that destroy everything in their path. For people who are tied to nature, the secrets of survival are transferred from generation to generation.

The 20th Century Retirement Invention

As technology became more important, the role of elders in the society shifted. No longer the vessel for survival, they became expendable in the work place. This played out fully during the great depression of the twentieth century.

The Social Security Act of 1935 was enacted to “give some measure of protection to the average citizen and his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age,” according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While Social Security was aimed to do that, it also paved a way for the older worker to get out of the way, so younger unemployed men could get into the workforce. While it might have served a social good, it also set older people adrift without a purpose in life.

The word retirement comes from the French “retirer” which means literally “to go off into seclusion.” People were reluctant to make the transition into the “roleless role” of old age, feeling cut off and isolated after retiring. In fact, in 1950 over half the men over the age of 65 remained in the workforce.

The idea of retirement slowly changed because of the vision of a handful of home builders who saw its potential. The image of old seniors sitting out their days rocking on the front porch was replaced by the ideal of the “golden years”, a phrase coined by home builder Del Webb to initiate the dream of a retirement spent in a constant state of fun and leisure and retirement homes communities.

Within a generation, the concept of retirement shifted from being a dreaded limbo characterized by labor leader Walter Reuther as “Too old to work, too young to die,” to a time of senior activities and relaxation in payment many felt entitled to for their years of hard work.

Another shift occurred during the twentieth century. In 1900, the average age men lived was 47 years old. When Social Security was enacted, the average life expectancy of an adult male was 65 years old. By the twenty-first century, the life expectancy had extended to 77 years old.

Based on this extended lifespan, adult development researchers have created the concept of the Third Age, a period where personal fulfillment is the focus. Leisure is no longer a sufficient way to spend one’s later years. “Today’s retirees are social guinea pigs. We are shifting away from the model of learning for 20 years, working like a mad dog for 40, and goofing around for 20. What is evolving is some new blend between learning, working and leisure,” according to Dr. Ken Dychtwald, author of Age Power and leading expert on aging today.

When asked what they want out of retirement or third age, the boomers will respond they want something different than their parents. How many hours a week can one really spend on a golf course? As they have with every other phase they’ve embarked, Baby Boomers will transform Third Age. Not feeling old or over the hill, but not necessarily wanting to continue as they have before, Baby Boomers will look at the next phase in a new light, defining success in a new way.

As you set out to redefine Third Age, answer the following question:

What did you want to do before you started doing what you’re doing?

What were your dreams as a youngster?

As you look at the traditional roles of retirement, how do you want to reinvent your Third Age?

How do you want your Third Age to be different from your parents/grandparents – or do you?

About Cathy Severson

Cathy Severson helps baby boomers find more meaning and purpose in their lives and work. Get your copy of her complimentary e-book Guide to Retirement Activities a comprehensive look at work, volunteering and leisure based on an individuals’ personalities. Call for a complimentary 20-minute consultation to answer your most pressing concern. 928.775.4949 or email Cathy at

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